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VIEWPOINT: Is civilisation sustainable?

This month’s column examines a recent NASA-backed study that states that the fall of the Roman Empire and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian empires, all bears testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilisations can be both fragile and impermanent.

Why do civilisations fail? Applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei and a team of scientists from US universities and think-tanks analysed the world’s great civilisations over the past 5 000 years using a mathematical model they call ‘Human And Nature DYnamics’ (HANDY). In essence, the HANDY equations add accumulated wealth and economic inequality to a predator-prey model of humans and nature to simulate scenarios involving Elites, Commoners, Nature and Wealth. It shows that “economic stratification” or “ecological strain” can each lead to societal collapse, while the combination of both can be deadly.

As societies stratify between Elites and Commoners, resource flow to the Elites accelerates to cause the kind of unequal societies we see in South Africa and increasingly around the world. Eventually the demand for resources exceeds the capacity of the environment and supply. These societies and their populations collapse – time and again. The Commoners decline first, while the Elites usually react too late and in turn disappear into the sands of time.

We may believe that we’re too technologically advanced to repeat this history, based on exponential growth since the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. Yet the global economy is perilously fragile following the 2008 near-collapse and the Elites (the so-called 1 per cent) own an overwhelming slice of available wealth. Could sudden climate change tumble down this era’s house of cards? North America recently emerged from a savage winter in which the Niagara Falls froze solid twice, while China’s northern population literally struggles to breathe due to industrial smog. Is a tipping point event on its way?

On the brighter side, the HANDY study suggests that visionary structural changes can restore sustainability, based on distributing resources more equally across societies, reducing our demands on nature and getting populations to shrink. Even so, the authors are realistic: “Elites … who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ … of doing nothing.”

And so they do, as well-funded lobbyists argue vehemently against climate change and stakeholder interests. Yet the UN’s latest IPCC report (31 March) paints the bleakest picture yet of the environmental havoc heading our way. The only real question is – can fundamental change be instituted quickly enough? ❐

Download the study at http://www.atmos.umd.edu/~ekalnay/pubs/2014-03-18-handy1-paper-draft-safa-motesharrei-rivas-kalnay.pdf.

Author: Clive Lotter